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Francesc Gòdia:"Industrial Biotechnology favours the circular economy"

07 July 2017

Francesc Gòdia is Professor of Chemical Engineering at Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB). His teaching activity is focused on Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology. He is the coordinator of the Biotechnology programme at UAB. Chairman of the European Congress of Biotechnology (ECB) in 2007 and 2009, and the meeting of ESACT in 2003 and 2015. He is author of more than 85 papers, 5 patents, and advisor of 28 PhD theses.

Francesc Gòdia:"Industrial Biotechnology favours the circular economy"

Francesc Gòdia is Professor of Chemical Engineering at Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB). His teaching activity is focused on Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology. He is the coordinator of the Biotechnology programme at UAB. Chairman of the European Congress of Biotechnology (ECB) in 2007 and 2009, and the meeting of ESACT in 2003 and 2015. He is author of more than 85 papers, 5 patents, and advisor of 28 PhD theses.

What is Industrial Biotechnology?


Industrial Biotechnology (IB) refers to industrial processes based on catalysts, which, instead of being chemical, are biological so enzymes, cells, and even viruses (case of vaccines) are used. IB has also other denominations that have to do with different areas of application. Thus, the White Biotechnology refers to biotechnology applications in the world of raw materials (bioplastics, chemicals) processing and also energy. This includes a wide field, from enzymes for detergents to the production of bioethanol as biofuel. Red Biotechnology refers to both animal and human health. Green Biotechnology is related to food and agriculture. The most important fields of application of IB are white and red. IB bioprocesses always entail a reactor where, for instance, an enzyme makes possible a transformation (by which cells produce an organic acid, an amino acid, an antibiotic or a monoclonal antibody) and then there is a purification phase based on techniques such as centrifugation, filtration, chromatography, etc., to get the product with a certain quality, which depends mainly on its final application.

Are talking about a recent concept or about something that has been around for some years?


It is a concept that has long been underway, although it has not always been known by the name of Industrial Biotechnology, which is more recent. A key historical example is the production of antibiotics which is one of the first "biological" productions that has experienced the need to be industrialized. When antibiotics have been developed at the end of World War II there were no industrial bioreactors. The first reactor of this type was made in the US and had a capacity of 5 litres and 20 years later reactors had already reached 125,000 litres of capacity and today some of them have 400,000 litres. After antibiotics insulin and organic acids -such as lactic acid- were produced and all this change can be described as a process of industrialization of biotechnology: small scale reactions could become large scale. This was done according to the standards of the pharmaceutical industry processes where it is very relevant to avoid any contamination of the products.

What is the importance of enzymes in IB?


Enzymes have had a very important contribution to make chemical industry more sustainable. For example, all the enzymes used in detergents today have been obtained by biotechnology. They are basically lipases and proteases which are basically used to hydrolyse clothing stains. These products have made possible to wash at lower temperatures than before with the resulting energy savings. Enzymes are also used in other industrial fields such as tanning, treating paper pulp or in the field of health, the production of the test strips used to monitor diabetics through blood.

Could you mention other relevant products of industrial biotechnology?

Lactic acid is used in many applications. It may be the precursor to obtain polylactic which is a biopolymer that allows to produce textile fibres and different plastics. We are talking about industrial processes that are already on the market. There is also bioethanol, which has been important since the 80s to reduce our dependence on oil. Some countries with large areas of land have dedicated a portion of this land to crops for biofuels. They use, for instance, sugar cane to obtain the substrate fermentation needed to distil ethanol that later will be used in cars.

What are the environmental challenges of industrial biotechnology?


One goal that industrial biotechnology should achieve is to turn the hard conditions in which many catalysis are done into milder conditions. Enzymes and cells working in an aqueous medium at moderate temperatures also have a highly selective capacity to transform molecules, a capacity that chemical processes don't have unless hard conditions are used. What does that mean? Well, chemistry uses high temperature and pressure conditions and industrial biotechnology does not. Therefore, it requires less energy consumption and the environmental impact is lower because fewer potentially toxic compounds are used. Another important aspect is the raw material. In much of the chemical industry the raw material is from fossil origin, so someday it will be depleted. However, biotechnology is based on renewable raw materials. It is true that there is -in the case of biofuels- an ongoing debate about whether "fuel" crops should displace food crops. I don't believe that one thing is contrary to the other. Historically, mankind has always had crops that have not been dedicated to food, such as cotton, which has been used for textile fibres.

What are, more generally, the future challenges, in this field?


One of the biggest challenges the biotechnology industry faces is to improve its efficiency by using raw materials coming from waste. For example, when we produce food we don't eat the whole plant but only a part of it. Well, if this part could enter into the industrial production process that would be very interesting. From this perspective, IB favours circular economy. Another major challenge for IB in the future is to be able to use the sun's energy directly into industrialized photosynthetic processes, which will be a breakthrough in the sustainability of the industry. Industrialization of antibiotics and organic acids is already fully optimized and highly profitable, but the cultivation of microalgae in certain industrial processes using sunlight is not yet fully mastered. Microalgae could be genetically modified to produce many things. For example, itaconic acid which is one of most important chemical intermediates in the industry. This would avoid having to get that acid from crude oil. The key is having the ability to produce a sufficient amount to make it attractive from the point of view of productivity and profitability.

The public authorities are aware of the strategic importance of industrial biotechnology?


One of the goals is that, by 2020, 20% of the chemical industry has turned to biotechnology. When we hear about green chemistry industry it means actually this transformation. There are some reports that even the OECD has quantified this transition. Besides, we have the bioeconomy strategies of the European Union, including industrial biotechnology, which have been the source of different projects. Spain has recently approved a national strategy on bioeconomy.


Image Credit UAB